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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Comment

Modern Day Hal
James Skinner

They ran the old sci-fi movie ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’ on one of the TV channels the other night. I remember when this film came out in 1968, just before man landed on the moon on the Apollo 11 mission. Computerisation was still a bulky method used for mathematical calculations. Telecommunications in general was just beginning to emerge from the steam age.

Although sluggish in today’s visual entertainment media, the film still carried a strong philosophical ‘punch’ of man’s inability to control his destiny even with the use of computers. Stanley Kubrick wrote and directed it with the assistance of Sir Arthur Clark, one of the world’s leading astrologers, sadly departed in March last year. The message the movie tries to convey may, at times be difficult to interpret but in essence is pretty straightforward. A mysterious monolith appears on earth over 40 million years ago and baffles the early descendants of man disguised as misguided apes. From then on we see the evolution of mankind and their fear that other and more intelligent beings from outer space are a constant threat of invasion. They are determined to protect earth’s superior race from unidentified aliens. In the film, man is supposed to have reached the supreme level of intelligence (remember it is 1968) by developing space cities and craft controlled by an equally intelligent computer named HAL. The conclusion is obvious. HAL tries to take over whilst man continues in his quest searching for an answer to his future destiny.

We’ve come a long way since then. Despite the incredible, almost apocalyptic accuracy of the film’s predictions (man has been to the moon and back, has built ‘floating’ mini-cities and continues to venture out into space on a regular basis, including tourists to fly around the earth) fear of the unknown ‘beyond’ is ever present in the minds of today’s society. As far as being dominated by computers one just has to look around; man has certainly reached that stage and although HAL may not be a life threatening monster (yet!), his dependence on these machines is a never ending saga as these have transformed into a multitude of mini-HAL9000 forms that control every aspect of today’s lifestyle. Both Kubrick and Clark have passed away but I’m sure that they must be laughing in their graves! Just take a look around.

Transport of information and dissection of the same go hand in hand. The first depends on the second and vice versa. In other words, computers are used to transmit and receive signals of all kinds sending imagines, sounds and basic text information, whilst similar machines are busily crunching, disassembling, analysing and piecing together every intelligent ‘bit’ to be handed out in a plethora of formats for mankind to use in pursuit of his happiness and wellbeing. We started off with telegrams, telephones and radio, followed by telex, fax and television. Ah! That was not enough. Man continued to streamline each and every one of these inventions by designing fax, mobile telephony and finally the ‘crème de la crème’ in the form of Internet; a type of ‘instant coffee’ telecoms system. In other areas of modern life, computers have also taken over. They build cars, fly airplanes, conduct medical operations, play music, and sing inside hearing aids. They even add up your beer bill in the ‘pub’. Questions are: do they provide us with a better life and what is more important, an insight into the future destiny of our elite animal life? Are we on the road to reaching a level of human satisfaction thanks to the never ending army of HAL’s that now control our modern world?
Pause for reflection!

What about the protection of our very planet? Is all this super duper machinery on the stores of every technical shop in town going to assist us in survival, let alone plan the future of our destiny? There are no doubt that computers and the peripheral gadgetry give us pleasure and ease our daily stressful life but they also add to massive consumerism of basic goods.

I refer once again to the movie world. ‘Dances with Wolves’, starring Kevin Costner. It is the story of a lone Yankee army Lieutenant who ventures out into the wilds of the American West just after the Civil War and befriends a local tribe of Sioux Indians. Without going into the details of the storyline suffice to say that the lifestyle of the Indians is one of cohabitation with nature. In other words, both human and the offerings of the wild respect each other. A simple example is the hunting of sufficient buffalo to feed and clothe the community. Suddenly the ‘rich’ white men arrive on the scene and show us the darker side of humanity. They begin slaughtering these animals for the lucrative fur trade back on the east coast leaving the carcasses to rot in the blearing sun.

Fast forward 150 years and what have we got; an incredible similarity except that this time we must include all the mod cons of today’s world. Concentrating solely on the main theme, computers, large ones have turned into smaller ones, then into personal desk versions; finally ending up as portable laptops. They’ve all become smaller, smarter, and cheaper but the most important point is that the whole lot has become disposable. Every time Bill Gates sneezes he sends the garbage collectors around the world with masses of dustbins to pick up the debris of useless computers. Can we not compare this ‘carnage’ of disposability to that of the buffalos of the West?

Sure, everyone is now talking about recycling. One huge melting pot is waiting around the corner for all iPods, Play Stations or Wi-Fi’s, not to mention the trillions of invisible versions of mini-computers in cars, washing machines, refrigerators or dentist drills, to mention but a few. Big deal! HAL is telling us that it cannot be done, it’s too late! He’s also advising us that the snowball is speeding down the hill and cannot be stopped.

Hold on! We’ve also got a world crisis going on. Will this have an effect on computerisation? Hungry countries like Brazil, China and India have recently joined the bandwagon of computer consumption and thanks to their economic growth may well put a stop to this whole shambles of an international financial disaster. It won’t take long before we’re back on track with more and more work for the computer dump trucks.
‘HAL; we give in. Tell us how to please you without upsetting the planet.’
‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do!’
© James G. Skinner. November, 2009.

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